Outflank Your Own Resistances to Change
Motivation to Change is Not Enough!
Posted September 14, 2009
One of the primary reasons that motivation, of itself, does not automatically lead to change is that we fear the demands involved may be too costly. We may have to see our own role in the problems we are having and do something about it. In addition, we worry about how other people will react when our behavior patterns change. Finally, seeing our own role in our problems does cause some painful reflection about the past and how much time we have wasted in behaving as we have. But the "advantages" of staying the same can be very costly and if we take just a few simple steps we can avail ourselves of the freedom and insights that dealing with resistance can afford.
Change-even when we are aware that we have problems that need to be confronted-sometimes seems so elusive. As a result, understanding as much as we can about our own hesitancy to both uncover resistances and act effectively to address those areas we need to change is essential. This is especially so when we feel responsible for the welfare of others, where stress can be so intense and working through resistances can literally be the difference between life and death, burning out or not, living with meaning or drifting in quiet blunted despair.
As noted below, the psychological concept of "resistance" in helping patients who are experiencing emotional distress has changed for psychotherapists over the years. A quick review of the evolution of this concept now would be helpful for all of us wishing to overcome our own barriers to personal and professional growth.
In the early years of psychology, a client's resistance to change was often looked upon as solely a motivational problem. When a person did not succeed in changing, the counselor felt: "I did my job in pointing out your difficulties. In return, you didn't do yours!" The blame rested upon the one seeking change. The goal was to eliminate the resistances and get the person motivated again.
Now, we recognize that when someone resists change and growth they are not purposely giving family, friends, coworkers and counselors a hard time. Instead, they are unconsciously providing a great deal of critical information on problematic areas of their life given their personality style, history, and current situation. This material then becomes a real source of new wisdom for psychological growth, professional advancement, and spiritual insight. Though we still believe motivation is an essential key to making progress, we see that persons seeking change must also gain certain knowledge about themselves and act on it if they wish to advance. Or, in a nutshell: Motivation or positive thinking is good, but it is obviously not enough.
One of the primary reasons that motivation, of itself, does not automatically lead to change is that we fear that the demands involved may be too costly. We may have to see our own role in the problems we are having and do something about it. In addition, we worry about how other people will react when our behavior patterns change; the move toward health can be also surprisingly upsetting to those who are used to "the devil they know" (a person's usual defensive style.) They may even feel challenged to change and they might be uncomfortable in dealing with this. Finally, seeing our own role in our problems does cause some negative reflection about the past and how much time we have wasted in behaving as we have.
Despite such resistances to insight and growth, the "advantages" of staying the same are very costly, while the freedom and insights that invites us can greatly benefit us and those with whom we interact are so great. Consequently, in respect to the tyranny of habit and secondary gain, we must take whatever measures we can to make our steps toward self-knowledge and personal-professional growth more realistic. So, as in the case of our approach to those we might be called upon to support or help grow, two ways we can improve our own self-awareness are by increasing our sensitivity to our defensiveness, and by taking what actions we can to outflank our resistances.
The defense we use to export the blame for our problems in life is called "projections." This defensive style is manifested in many obvious and quiet ways. We might deny our role in mistakes; excuse our behavior; contextualize our actions; absolve ourselves for ignoring or crossing boundaries in relationships that we shouldn't; rationalize failures; and generally remove ourselves from the equation while focusing on the negative role others have played.
We do this partly in reaction to a general tendency to go overboard when trying to take responsibility for our own role in various unpalatable events. Instead of trying to understand what part we played so we can learn from this, we move from remorse about what we've done to shame about who we are. With this movement from remorse to shame, we start to condemn ourselves, become hypercritical of our behavior, overly perfectionistic, unrealistic in our comparison with others in life, and over-responsible with respect to the impact we did and can have.
A better approach is to recognize and act upon the need to take a step back from the event, try to frame the situation in an objective way by almost behaving as if it involved someone else, and seek to become intrigued about our role. In this way, we increase the possibility for change. At the same time, we are more likely to avoid overly blaming others, condemning ourselves, or getting discouraged when results don't happen immediately. Accordingly, in a spirit of mindfulness and to further reduce the resistance to change, there are several caveats I normally offer in order to outflank the blocks to growth in myself and others. They are:
Anything discovered does not have to be changed immediately;
No area should be condemned ...just neutrally observed as if it were happening to someone else;
No area should be defended-no one is criticizing or attacking, just observing where the energy is being spent;
Observations-even disturbing ones-should be embraced as a wonderful treasure trove of information;
After each period of observation, the areas of concern should be written down so some record is kept of discovery.
With these provisions in mind, we can then consider the following principle with a greater sense of openness: Where there is energy (positive or negative) there is usually a grasping and/or fear. When the smoke of a strong reaction is present, the fire of desire is also usually present and we need to know what it is. Otherwise, rather than our passions being good energy, they may be the product of unexamined attachments.
They then keep us connected to views and convictions that are covering or distorting the truth rather than leading us to it. In recognizing and overcoming resistances to growth and change, we are able to appreciate that the most important person in improving our situation is ourselves. As persons, we accept this responsibility not with a spirit of self-condemnation or over responsibility but with a sense of intrigue about the possibility within ourselves. We can see that at times we are emotional and opinionated. We understand that blindness like this occurs because of fear and hesitation that may be partially rooted in our past but is certainly centered in a belief system that is tyrannical and often wrong. This results in a style of "self-talk" that comes as our friend and seemingly supports us. Nevertheless, in the end it undercuts our ability to see things clearly and have solid self esteem. Such clarity and self esteem must be rooted in a kind of honest self-knowledge that allows us to view with equanimity our talents and gifts as well as our growing edges.
Dr. Robert Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland and the author of BOUNCE: LIVING THE RESILIENT LIFE (Oxford) and a book on spiritual mindfulness entitled PRAYERFULNESS: AWAKENING TO THE FULLNESS OF LIFE (Sorin Books).